Bayanihan law expires today; no more emergency powers

MANILA, Philippines, June 25 ------ The Bayanihan to Heal As One Act expires today, and with it President Duterte’s emergency powers to quickly procure medical supplies needed for the government’s fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr., however, expressed hope yesterday that the executive branch would find middle ground with Congress in order to address the issue. Roque admitted that the approval of the economic stimulus package prior to adjournment of the 18th Congress earlier this month hit a snag due to disagreements among some executive officials, such as Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, and lawmakers.

“The original proposal was simply to expand the emergency powers and that would have been no problem, but the pending bills now in both houses of Congress incorporated the stimulus package, and that’s where differences (arose) with the executive,” Roque said. “Secretary Dominguez doesn’t want the stimulus package to be something that we can’t pay for. But I think negotiations are continuing.” The President’s emergency powers, Roque noted, enabled the government to act swiftly in the procurement of ventilators, personal protective equipment and test kits, and provide budget for the hiring and deployment of healthcare workers.

“It would be important to have flexibility (for) emergency purposes without having to comply with procurement law,” he said. Roque noted that in the case of Cebu City, which has been reverted to enhanced community quarantine until June 30, the national government has to intervene. “It is still important to have the power somehow to take over some private hospitals like what is happening in Cebu. We’ve had to hire nurses and make them work in private hospitals,” he said. “We’ve asked them to increase. I don’t know if they’ve actually complied because we need medical care capacity in Cebu City.”

In Cebu City where private hospitals are only allotted a fixed number of beds for COVID cases, Roque said it would be easier for the national government to make necessary adjustments under the Bayanihan Act. “The emergency power is important in this case because if they don’t comply and if they don’t allot, then we may have to take over some of these hospitals and hire our own nurses and doctors to handle our COVID cases. That’s the importance of emergency powers,” he said. Roque said: “The challenge posed by Cebu City is the challenge posed to the entire country, if and when we have uncontrolled growth of the disease, spread of diseases.”

For now, Roque said, the government has everything it needs in terms of increased healthcare capacity on the national scale. “Of course, we would need emergency powers again because it takes forever to comply with the procurement act for purposes of emergency. But I am confident that time will come the executive and both houses of Congress can agree on something, and we can now ask Congress to hold a special session,” Roque said.

Since the Bayanihan Act’s enactment last March, the government has been able to dispatch funds to allow procurement of medical supplies and provide assistance to frontline workers, those who were displaced due to the pandemic, as well as give social amelioration funds to the poorest of the poor. President Duterte would decide “in the next few days” whether he would convene Congress for a special session to discuss the Bayanihan to Recover As One Act, according to Finance Secretary Dominguez. “I will know within the next few days,” Dominguez said when asked regarding the possibility of a special session during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum yesterday. According to the finance chief, the proposed session was being discussed with Congress to ensure that it would be spent productively. “It’s under discussion. In fact by today, we should really have come to an agreement already with the leaderships of both houses. Today or tomorrow,” he said. “We want to make sure that if there’s a special session called, that actually, we will come out with something rather than nothing,” he added.